I spent a couple of weeks south recently, it was nice to see friends and family (a brand new grandson and the first one, getting on a bit at two years old).
I enjoyed driving around the big city at walking pace, having time to see which shops and restaurants were still in business, which were closed or gone forever and what new enterprises had popped up since COVID and in my absence.
I always try to meet a group of ex-colleagues for lunch on such trips and we managed it again this time. The pub restaurant was warm and inviting; tables were segregated into booths by glass screens and social distancing seemed pretty good – along with availability of hand sanitiser and waiters fully masked.
All that may have been true but one of our number was very nervous of COVID and insisted we sat outside. “Outside!!!???” said the maître d’hôtel, “are you sure?” The wind was whipping round, and driving the rain through flaps of the marquee that were supposed to be protecting diners (had there been any). We chose the most sheltered spot and a waiter quickly dried the chairs and table with a tea towel. I caught his eye and raised mine to heaven by way of apology.
I tell this story for the benefit of people who believe Orkney weather to be the worst in the world (it isn’t) and that the sun always shines in the south (it doesn’t). We had been tipped off about Glyn’s insistence on sitting outside and all arrived wearing hats and coats. The management offered hot water bottles (yes, really) to place on our laps, but all being former players in our old school staff football team, we thought it a bit sissy. In the event the squall passed and we enjoyed a very nice lunch, in spite of the massive price hike since the pandemic.
Anyway the whole visit passed off pleasantly enough. The city is crowded and walking distances between shops can be considerable. I was even tired after a visit to B&Q in search of a few items, such were the distances from the door to the cleaning section and then on to the plumbing department. Lucky they had a café. Even the interview with the reception person had taken ten minutes while I tried to explain what I wanted and he tried to think where it might be.
Rémy - grandson number one – got an early lesson in queuing when there were two children ahead of him for the slide. It had to be explained that his preferred solution to the blockage: to climb up the actual slide, was not acceptable. It was nice to see lots of big trees around the play park, with the first glow of autumn colours, but I am a bit frustrated by the way they block off the long views over the countryside.
We set off north on the Wednesday morning and encountered many a lorry on the motorways until we reached Perth where they began to thin out. On the second day we stopped for lunch in Dornoch and enjoyed a stroll around the fabulous little town with the miniature medieval cathedral reminding us of St Magnus still to come. Parking was easy. An Orkney friend once told me she had visited south after a long absence and found she had lost the knack of reverse parking into a tight space. “In Orkney,” she said, “we just stop when we get where we want to be, then drive forward when we leave.”
At home the next day there was no one on the cliff path. When I took my cousin on this two-hour walk a couple of years ago she had asked “Do you ever meet anyone else on here?” There was only one other person in the carpark when we went to see 007 at the Picky cinema. We found we knew one another so had a quick catch up before the film, then discovered we were in the next row.
The cold, fresh Orkney milk had greeted us on the doorstep on the first morning and I took a deep, involuntary breath as I picked it up. I had taken my first deep breath in Dornoch on realising, all over again, how much I relish the space, peace, quiet and tranquillity of the north.
Since being back in Orkney I have taken several more.
Richard writes regularly for Scottish Islands Explorer. His first book: 'Scotland’s Islands – A Special Kind of Freedom' was published in 2014. 'Orkney – A Special Place' appeared in 2017, with 'Orkney - A Special Way of Life' arriving in 2021. The books are published by Luath Press, Edinburgh